Alan Moore’s Marvelman, Part 1:

From the Ashes of Obscurity…

This is my paltry examination of Moore’s work on Marvelman. Also note, unless referring to the actual renaming of the book, I will refer to the character and his respective family as Marvelman.

Part 1: From the ashes of obscurity…

The premiere issue of the British anthology Warrior introduced younger readers to a character that had been forgotten by many: Marvelman. The character had laid dormant for two decades but returned in a blaze of glory. He was penciled spectacularly by Garry Leach with words by a young and already very talented Alan Moore. Who was this blue spandexed Aryan god? The characters within the story reflected many readers confusion as they too were completely clueless who the character was. But Marvelman was an established character and proudly boasted his return with the final line, “I’m Marvelman. I’m Back!” But who was this character?

The publication history of Marvelman is not inherently necessary to enjoy the contents of Moore’s Marvelman saga. But cursory knowledge of his publication history adds to the poignancy that Moore intended with developing a character that had already existed. Moore’s Marvelman is a rarity in superhero comics. The entirety of Moore’s story is intended to be read as a standalone graphic novel. Readers can approach Moore’s Marvelman with no prior knowledge of the character and read to a logical and powerful climax. A true graphic novel is a standalone work that requires no supplementary material or prior reading to be enjoyed. Moore wanted everyone who was unfamiliar with Marvelman to be able to enjoy his story and included enough exposition and proper flashbacks to make this possible. One of the only other major graphic novels to do such is Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns; one need not know anything about Batman to read and enjoy Miller’s story. Yet for older readers who were familiar with Marvelman, Moore wanted to make the older stories of the character still hold weight and significance.

The character of Marvelman was created in 1953 by Mick Anglo. The character was not at all original. The British Publisher L. Miller & Sons was making money reprinting Captain Marvel comics. Captain Marvel followed the amazing Billy Batson, who was chosen by the wizard Shazam to become the hero Captain Marvel. Billy would transform into Captain Marvel by saying the magic words: “Shazam!” Captain Marvel was joined by the Marvel Family of Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr. Captain Marvel would face-off against the machinations of the mad scientist Dr. Sivana and his inverse Black Adam. Captain Marvel comics grew to be popular enough that he was outselling the original superhero Superman. However, Captain Marvel’s publisher Fawcett soon found themselves embittered in a lawsuit from Superman’s publishers, National Comics (later to be known as DC Comics). National would argue in their lawsuit that Captain Marvel was too similar to Superman and therefore a copyright infringement. Both characters wore primary colors, had a cape, had similar superpowers and both had an alter ego that worked at a newspaper with Superman’s Clark Kent being a reporter and Billy Batson a paper boy. The courts would eventually rule in favor of National Comics, and Fawcett weary of the lawsuits settled out of court. Ironically, DC Comics would later buy the rights to Captain Marvel and publish the character.

As the lawsuit began L. Miller & Sons desperate to continue their profits commissioned Mick Anglo to create a pastiche of Captain Marvel that would be barely discernibly different from Captain Marvel. Anglo obliged his publishers, though he apparently retained legal rights of his creation, and created Marvelman. The character of Marvelman was so clearly Captain Marvel that it teetered the line between banal and kitschy. Billy Batson was now Micky Moran, Captain Marvel Jr was now Young Marvelman, Shazam was now Borghelm, Black Adam was now Young Nastyman (seriously) and Dr. Sivana was now Dr. Gargunza. One of the only genuine changes was that rather than have a Mary Marvel-clone there was the boy Kid Marvelman, making the Marvelman Family a boy’s club, likely reflecting the readership. The most significant differences between Marvelman and Captain Marvel was location and cosmetic. Captain Marvel stories took place in an American city, whereas Marvelman lived in Britain. One of the more discernible and genuine differences was that unlike Superman or Captain Marvel, Marvelman lacked the physique of Hercules. Marvelman had the trim physique of a gymnast rather than the bulging biceps of a bodybuilder. Also, Marvelman’s costume was blue with his transformation keyword being “Kimota” while his companions would transform by saying “Marvelman”. Although we can delight in acknowledging how slight the differences were in creating Marvelman, it must be emphasized that Marvelman was not a character intended to be original. Marvelman was a character quickly made to replace a popular character for British boys.

The stories of Marvelman read like most golden age comic book stories. At their best there can be some genuine charm from the artwork and stories. At their worst, they could be kitschy and forgettable stories with uncomfortable attitudes and representation on display. Yet this is not surprising when one considers that the comics of the Golden Age were mostly written to meet-deadlines. The comics of the Golden Age were written for young children and were not intended to be vociferously re-read and analyzed. The very fact that Marvelman would be gorgeously re-printed on hardcover collections is somewhat absurd. Because of the intended audience, the Golden Age comics were not moored to reality and would present fantastic ideas no matter how quixotic or absurd as they could be. Moore would describe the ideas of the Golden Age of comics as “brilliantly stupid”. In DC Comics you had Ace the Bat-Hound, a dog who wore a mask. Why would a dog need to wear a mask? No character dared ask or their four-color world’s absurdity be immediately recognized. Yet readers could appreciate the mad genius that Ace’s pointed ears resembled the cowl of Batman. Over-analysis by men like Dr. Wertham or any adults on Golden Age comic books is idiotic. Golden Age comic books were like a Looney Tunes cartoon, something to be enjoyed by children and then immediately forgotten.

Logic and reality were not applicable in the charming black-and-white world of Marvelman. Grant Morrison’s first comic was a Marvelman comic where Marvelman met Baron Munchausen. In Alan Moore’s brilliant mixture of deconstruction and revisionism in Act I: A Dream of Flying, Moore reveals that Marvelman’s original adventures were dreams created by virtual reality. Within both the context of the story and in a metatextual commentary, Moore posits that the Golden Age of comics followed the logic and storytelling of dreams. The Golden Age of comics was pure imagination with no discernible reality or internal consistency required. Yet a young Alan Moore when reading Marvelman comics had the simple idea of wondering what would happen if Marvelman were to appear in the real world?

Marvelman had a good run of 10 years of publication when his stories ended. Had Alan Moore not written the character, Marvelman would have probably fallen in the dustbin with many charming golden age heroes. As Alan Moore was becoming a rising star in the British Comics world he was quoted in an interview expressing a desire to write Marvelman. Marvel UK editor Dez Skinn read the article and contacted Moore about writing Marvelman for his creator-owned anthology Warrior. Skinn claimed that the copyright for Marvelman had lapsed into public domain, and that he could be written by anyone. This would turn out to not be true at all. How much Skinn willfully misled Moore or was simply misinformed is heavily disputed. Moore wanted approval from Marvelman’s creator Mick Anglo before using the character. Anglo approved, provided he was given some compensation for using Marvelman. Anglo received some compensation, but he did not die a rich man.

The original Mick Anglo stories of Marvelman help to add another layer to Moore’s stories. Moore intentionally frames Marvelman as a character who existed both literally and figuratively in a dream-world. The Golden Age world has no serious consequences for violence and everything is possible. The characters routinely remember with a fond nostalgia how simple, innocent and pure Mick Anglo’s world was. In Act III: Olympus, Moore’s new creation Marvelwoman declares that all her physical abuse was irrelevant as her mind was permitted to explore the beautiful dream-world of comic books. The Golden Age world provides a glimpse into innocence that is made even more painful when juxtaposed against Moore’s harsh reality. Marvelman reflects in Act I: A Dream of Flying that in the golden age-era none of his enemies did anything truly evil, it was like a game. Contrasted to the destruction and genocide committed by Kid Marvelman in Act III: Olympus readers can understandably look fondly with nostalgia at the inherent innocence of the Golden Age of comics. By the end of Moore’s Marvelman the innocence of the golden age is forever lost. Though Marvelman attempts to create a paradise on earth, the nostalgia and purity of the Golden Age is gone. Alan Moore brought back Marvelman and utilized the original stories of Mick Anglo to comment on youthful innocence and its inevitable loss.

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James Kelly has been obsessed with comics and superheroes since he saw Batman: The Animated Series on TV. His father also got him hooked on Star Wars when he took him to the 1997 re-release of the magnificent Saga. Kelly graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in English Literature, and a concentration in Fiction Writing. He hopes to be able to one day produce his many comics and other writing projects to mass audiences.

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